LOOPER review

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception), Bruce Willis (Die Hard), Emily Blunt (The Adjustment Bureau)

Director/Writer: Rian Johnson (Brick)

Runtime: 1 hour 58 minutes

Release Date: 28 September (US, UK)

Looper is the brainchild of Rian Johnson, who made the terrific film-noir/high school movie Brick (he also made The Brothers Bloom, which I haven’t seen yet but really need to). The talent behind it, combined with the intriguing premise, has had me excited about this one for a while. Now that it’s finally released, I can happily say Looper lives up to all expectations and comes out as one of the best films of 2012 so far.

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The plot of Looper is more complicated than the trailer suggests. Joe (Gordon-Levitt)’s hunt for his future self (Willis) is merely the starting point of a story that goes much deeper into themes of loss, revenge, and of course time travel. Some of the major plot elements of the film have been completely omitted from the publicity, and wisely so, and some of them are more interesting that the initial premise. The way the time travel works in this world is explained in detail, but no so much that it becomes over-bearing and requires the use of a diagram. It does some unique things with the concept of the past affecting the future, while also taking some obvious queues from other sci-fi films (the film screams The Terminator at several points). The film keeps up a good clip, though it does slow down a fair bit in the latter half of the second act.

Many have found Gordon-Levitt’s make-up to make him look more like Bruce Willis to be a bit unnerving. But to be honest, you get used to it eventually. More importantly, Gordon-Levitt nails Willis’ mannerisms and tone of voice. But he also is sure to make his performance not an exact copy of Willis, considering that while they are both Joe, they are very different Joes that have experienced different things. Willis himself is on usual form, so if you know what to expect from him these days you’ll get exactly that. Emily Blunt, while introduced late in the film, does very well and has finally managed to shed her English accent for a role. Paul Dano and Jeff Daniels serve their small roles effectively, and Brick’s Noah Segan is back playing a similar role to the one he did in Johnson’s first film.

Action isn’t the main focus of Looper, but when it does it, it does it good. 95% of the action involves gunplay, and it works by limiting its arsenal to just a few different guns. The visual effects aren’t amazing either, but they do the job and never seem fake. The production design is where the film shines outside of story. The world is well designed and feels like a future that could actually happen: a well-blended mix of dystopic and apocalyptic. I also don’t think I’ve ever seen a sci-fi film take place mostly in corn fields, so points for originality there too. The cinematography is well done (especially during a scene where Joe goes on a drug trip) and the music is subtle but effective.

Overall, Looper is one of the best sci-fi movies in a while and easily stands up there with other modern classics like District 9, Inception and Source Code. Some may try to nitpick the film to death and point to some of its more unoriginal ideas, but look past the little details and you’ll find a film that, as a whole, is both fun and thought provoking.

FINAL VERDICT: 9/10

PARANORMAN review

Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road), Tucker Albrizzi (Bridesmaids), Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air), Casey Affleck (Gone Baby Gone), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Superbad)

Directors: Sam Fell (Flushed Away) & Chris Butler

Writer: Chris Butler

Runtime: 1 hour 32 minutes

Release Date: August 17th (US), September 14th (UK)

I had no real expectations going into ParaNorman. I hadn’t been religiously following it up until release, and didn’t really pay attention to it until the good reviews started coming in upon its US release. And now that I’ve finally watched it, I can easily say that ParaNorman is the best animated film of the year so far.

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The plot is fairly straightforward and easy to follow for a kid’s film, but what’s original about ParaNorman isn’t its broad plot, but its slight intricacies. The exact character traits and plot points are against the grain and not what you’d expect (a couple of them could be seen as revolutionary). The film is very fast paced and doesn’t stop moving once the second act kicks into gear. The jokes, while not consistently hitting, fly so fast you hardly notice the bad ones. There are many references to classic horror movies (Norman’s ringtone is the Halloween theme. Nice!) and the film even opens with a tribute to Grindhouse. Not sure how many kids are going to get that reference, but its still awesome.

The film has a high quality cast that helps to bring some of these eccentric characters to life. Smit-Mcphee can sometimes be a little dull as Norman, but considering the loner attitude of the character, it fits. Mintz-Plasse does a good job as the bully Alvin, but even in the animated world he can’t escape being recognised as McLovin. The stand-outs for me in the cast were Affleck as the jock Mitch (a certain revelation about him is hysterical, John Goodman as Norman’s hobo uncle, and Jeff Garlin as Norman’s dad. The rest of the voices fit well with their characters, but don’t really stand out as much. Oh, and Jodelle Ferland plays another creepy child. Haven’t seen that before *sarcasm*.

But the stand out thing about ParaNorman is the animation. This was the same company that did Coraline, and it shows. The stop-motion feels so much smoother than films by Aardman, and really helps to suck you in. The art style, while very reminiscent of Tim Burton or Henry Selick, is beautifully realised to create some very detailed environments and set-pieces. The range of facial expressions, helped by the use of 3D printers, are astounding. CG is often used but, like with Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, it is used only to expand upon the stop-motion, not replace it. The music is also really good and balances a thin line between whimsy and horror flawlessly.

In conclusion, ParaNorman isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s still a damn great one and one I could see myself popping around Halloween. It often feels as if it caters more to adults than kids, but I think the entire family can enjoy this one as long as your kids aren’t too squeamish. Its technical achievments may outshine its story, but is still a fun ride regardless. Don’t miss it.

FINAL VERDICT: 8/10

DREDD review

Starring: Karl Urban (Star Trek), Olivia Thrilby (Juno), Lena Heady (300)

Director: Pete Travis (Vantage Point)

Writer: Alex Garland (28 Days Later)

Runtime: 1 hour 35 minutes

Release Date: 7 September (UK), 21 September (US)

Judge Dredd is the poster boy for British comic book publisher 2000AD. While I have never read a Dredd comic myself, I am fairly familiar with the character and find him interesting. They then made a Hollywood movie version in 1995 starring Sylvester Stallone. It was sub-par. Not just because it changed several key aspects of the comic (such as Dredd’s failure to keep his helmet on throughout the movie), but because it ended up being an over-budgeted, under-written 90’s sci-fi actioner. You know you’re a 90’s movie when Rob Schneider of all people plays your sidekick. 17 years later, the Brits have taken their icon back and put matters into their own hands to create Dredd. Does it stand above its disappointing predecessor, or does it “BETRAY THE LAW!”?

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The plot of Dredd is very simple and easy to follow, but story is hardly the film’s first priority. Many claimed after viewing the trailer that it was ripping off The Raid, but I’ll say for the record now that it has little to do with it other than the basic premise. Dredd is as similar to The Raid as The Hunger Games is similar to Battle Royale: enough to make the comparison, but so stylistically different that you soon forget. Instead, Dredd’s inspirations are clearly the sci-fi action movies of the 80’s. Several times throughout, there are clear similarities to films such as Robocop and Escape from New York. Dredd isn’t as clever as either of them, but it is just about as fun. The film has a tendency at the start to get bogged down in scenes full of exposition early on, but once the plot kicks into gear it all dissipates into blood and gunfire.

Sylvester Stallone’s portrayal of Judge Dredd was a performance that incited more laughter than fear. Karl Urban steps up to the role with a lot more stoic-ness and delivers a performance that is not only more menacing and bad-ass, but true to the source material (in answer to the fans: Yes, you never see his full face, and yes, he does get to say “I AM THE LAW!”). But on further examination, it becomes clear that Dredd himself isn’t the film’s main character. That falls more to the character of Judge Anderson (Olivia Thrilby). Not only does she serve as the audience avatar, she’s the film’s main emotional grab-on point. The filmmakers clearly know that Judge Dredd isn’t that sympathetic or relatable, and don’t try to make him a more standard hero like the Stallone version did. Luckily, Anderson isn’t a boring sidekick; she kicks about as much ass as Dredd does and even has a few witty one-liners. She’s also a psychic, which leads to some clever scenes between her and a perp they drag through most of the film. Lena Heady serves as the villainess and, while she is threatening and serves her role well, she doesn’t have enough screen time to be memorable.

But the main draw of a film like this is the action scenes, and Dredd delivers on that front. The action remains simple but fun, with some cool set pieces like when Dredd has to avoid a barrage of minigun fire. The film has sold itself on both the slow-mo (so much so that they incorporated it into the plot) and the 3D. The slow-mo scenes themselves are impressive, but don’t really advance too far after they’ve been introduced. At least they don’t spam it as much as some other films (Resident Evil: Afterlife anyone?). On the subject of 3D, it is mostly pointless; skip it if you have the choice. My main sticking point with the film is some of the CG, particularly the CG blood. How many times do I have to say it: CG blood looks terrible and is just plain laziness. It is even more obvious due to the slow motion. Please people, use practical blood if nothing else; it just pulls me out of the movie. Aside from this, the film is full of fun action, explosive sound and a kick-ass soundtrack.

In conclusion, Dredd is an awesome sci-fi action movie that should please both fans of the character and the genre. If you enjoy 80’s action movies, this is probably far more satisfying than watching The Expendables. While they don’t foreshadow it, I think it’s clear they want to make more of these. When they do, I’ll be queuing up for my ticket ASAP.

FINAL VERDICT: 8/10

BRAVE review

Pixar’s reputation for delivering quality animated films was impeccable. Then Cars 2 happened. One year later, they’re back trying to prove they haven’t sold out by releasing Brave, which is a first for several things at the studio. It’s their first fantasy film and their first film with a female protagonist. But can these help make this film stand out, or is this another misstep in the wrong direction?

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Brave tells a very simple fairy tale; one that takes many elements from the classics without feeling like a rip-off. It has enough Grimm-esque inspiration not to feel like a watered-down version of the tale (the sort you’d expect from a Disney production) and makes the film feel more unique than you’d expect. The characters are well fleshed out and you come to care about them, and I think that is mainly thanks to the main mother-daughter relationship; a dynamic rarely seen in films but one that Pixar pulls off to great effect. Merida and her mum feel like a proper bickering family, and their arguments about what is right don’t feel like they’re just there to serve the story. On the other hand, there were certain moments I felt logic went out the window purely to push the plot forward. I know these tropes are part of the whole fairy tale aesthetic, but it could have been much better executed. Overall, not the best tale Pixar has told, but is still a much better and more thought-out one than most would put into a kid’s film.

As I said, the characters of Brave really sell the story and that is helped by the great voice acting. Kelly Macdonald plays our heroine Merida with plenty of Scottish charm and the feistiness of a teenager to make her a believable character. Some may say she comes off as bratty and selfish but, as I said to those who had similar complaints about Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-Man, SHE’S A TEENAGER! Her behaviour is completely natural for her age and makes her seem not only more human, but emphasises the significance of her character arc. Also great are Emma Thompson and Billy Connolly as her parents; the three of them share fun and different dynamics between them that lead to some great comedy moments. But arguably the best characters are three who don’t talk: Merida’s wee brothers. Their antics lead to some hilarious physical comedy and while some may compare them to the minions from Despicable Me, I think they are far superior to those yellow rascals as they feel more like actual characters and they actually serve more of a purpose to the plot.

Pixar’s quality of animation has always been well above standard compared to those of Dreamworks and Sony, and that continues with Brave. As a Scotsman, I can tell you the designers clearly did their homework in researching the look and feel of the Scottish highlands with some very clear influences from certain areas. This leads to some stunning landscapes and beautiful vistas that further make this fantastical representation of Scotland feel more real. Less amazing but still great is the character design. While quite similar to other films of its ilk like How to Train Your Dragon or Tangled, the design still feels unique and no two characters look alike (other than the triplets, but that makes sense). The artistic style is easily among Pixar’s best and will be hard to top in the years to come.

In conclusion, while Brave isn’t among Pixar’s best (my personal favorites being the Toy Story trilogy, The Incredibles and Up) it is still a great family film and the best animated film I’ve seen this year. It’s made me all but forget the sour taste of Cars 2 and I look forward to more great films from Pixar in the future. Let’s just hope a prequel to Monsters Inc isn’t as stupid as it sounds…

Rating: 8/10

TED review

I’ll start off by saying I love Family Guy. I understand why some people don’t like it, but I do. And when it was announced that Seth MacFarlance was doing a movie I was all for it. Now that Ted has finally hit British shores, but does it match up to the quality of its small screen cousin?

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The story is pretty simple, but not so bland that you can predict the entire plot. It sticks to the basic template of the buddy movie/rom-com, but it remains fresh because of the lunacy of some of the situations these characters get into. This film was made by a guy who regularly breaks up scenes with fights with a giant chicken, remember? The film is quite limited in size and scope, but I don’t have a problem with that. MacFarlane fares better when its more about the character gags, even if the bigger moments still deliver. My main problem is that the antagonists of the film seem a bit forced in; it’s like the writers suddenly realised “Shit! We need a big climax! Let’s just create a character, give him two scenes prior, and then make him the villain”. It didn’t take away from the film too much as the bad guys are still funny, but I feel that the climax should have felt more natural.

The performances here are nothing to write home about, but they service the script well. Mark Wahlberg works here as a likeable protagonist and fits into the wackiness even if it looks like he doesn’t always know what’s going on (then again, I’ve seen Marky Mark in roles he definitely didn’t belong in. *cough* Max Payne! *cough* ). Mila Kunis is good here too; she could have easily fallen into making this character completely unlikable due to wanting Ted to leave, but she remains fun and avoids the stereotype. MacFarlane himself voices Ted and, while it’s clear he’s running out of voices to us (they even point it out!), he still remains a laugh riot throughout. Almost every line that comes out of his mouth is a gag, and most of them hit. The supporting cast is also good and filled with plenty of MacFarlane regulars and some surprise cameos. I won’t spoil any of them, but one of them is The Saviour of the Universe. Wink wink nudge nudge!

But what’s the most important thing about a comedy? Oh yeah, the comedy! Don’t worry, Ted has more than enough of those. If you know MacFarlane’s sense of humour, you’ll fall easily into this. The jokes come fast, in your face and never stop. Some do miss their targets, but no comedy has perfect aim and the misses are never huge bombs. Again, I don’t want to give away any jokes but you’ll find your fair share of pop culture references, toilet humour and even those good old non-sequiters. Man, don’t you just love it when they stop to do something that has noting to do with anything?

Elephant juice!

Anyway, you’ll certain laugh at this movie more than my painful attempts at comedy in this review.

Ted is by no means a perfect movie and there are certainly better comedies out there, but it delivers on exactly what it promise and never stops until the end.

8.5/10

Films of 2012 so far

Sorry, no movie review this week. The box office was kind of starved this weekend; guess everyone’s afraid to release anything in the wake of Batman. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to quickly go over all of this year’s films I’ve seen so far. Hope this gives you an idea of my taste in film.

Chronicle

A fun new take on the found footage genre and a great way of showing the origin of a supervillain. The creators of this film are great young new talent and I can’t wait to see what they’ll cook up next. 8.5/10

The Woman in Black

Haven’t seen the stage play so I can’t compare, but it works as film on its own. It is genuinly creepy at times and is good start for the return of Hammer. I can’t help but feel that Daniel Radcliffe was miscast, but he does fine with the material. 7/10

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Oh, Neveldine and Taylor. You suckered me in once again and crush my hopes in your hands and then spat on them. No amount of brilliant and creative camera work or decent special effects can save this unoriginal, plodding, neutered mess of a movie. Not even Nicolas Cage’s overacting could push this past anything more than mediocrity. 5.5/10

21 Jump Street

Biggest surprise of the year so far. What could have easily been another teen raunchfest is instead a clever, self-referential mash-up of cop and high school movies. It also shows that Channing Tatum has a bright future in comedy if he actively pursues it. 8.5/10

John Carter

While I don’t think it’s the train wreck most make it out to be, it’s far from perfect. The pacing is erratic, it takes far too long to get exciting, and Taylor Kitsch is an uninteresting leading man. However, the visual design and the action scenes push it over the line to make an enjoyable ride if you lower your expectations. 6/10

The Hunger Games

An interesting and enjoyable, if somewhat unoriginal, experience. Jennifer Lawrence continues to prove herself to be an effective leading lady, and the film really creates some large stakes for our main characters to overcome which leads to some genuinely emotional scenes. Now only if they could keep the f***ing camera still! 8/10

The Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists

While certainly not Aardman’s best work, it is a hilarious movie for both kids and adults. It’s great to see claymation still in use, and who better to do it that the masters of the art. 8/10

Battleship

Where to begin on this one? How about the end? F*** this movie and all its peers. I hope this method of filmmaking dies out before we are subjected to Connect 4: The Movie. 3/10

The Cabin in the Woods

HOLY S***! This movie is awesome! After many delays, this movie finally came out and blew all of my expectations. I can’t say anything without spoiling the experience, but if you love horror-comedies and you haven’t seen this yet, what is wrong with your brain? 10/10

The Avengers

After five years of teasing, the ultimate movie team-up has finally come and it does not disappoint. The film delivers on both the action and the characters, and shows that explosions and massive property destruction doesn’t always mean dumb and obnoxious. Joss Whedon can officially crown himself King of the Nerds for accomplishing what I think no other writer/director could, and I’m anticipating how the guys at Marvel are going to top this. 9.5/10

The Dictator

Sacha Baron Cohen finally moves out of the mockumentary format (or should I say “shockumentary”?) and tries a more traditional approach in this zany comedy. While it lacks the charm of Borat, it still made me laugh consistently and that’s all I was asking for. 8/10

The Raid

Now this is how you do action. One of the most brutal, fast-paced and energetic films I have ever seen. Who cares if the plot here is generic? It’s simply there to set up some of the most interesting and violent hand-to-hand fight scenes ever caught on film. Die Hard, eat your heart out! 9/10

Prometheus

Ridley Scott, you now how to raise our hopes and then make us respond with a confused “ummm…”. Whilst a visual masterpiece and full of interesting ideas and performances (particularly from The Fassbender), the film quickly becomes a somewhat predictable sci-fi horror that seems more interested in raising more questions that answering the ones it initially asked. 8/10

Snow White & The Huntsman

A beautiful visual design and impressive technical display on all fronts is tarnishing by poor pacing and ho-hum performances from the entire cast. It’s very clear Rupert Sanders has no experience in feature films and I think he should stick to what he knows rather than stick his nose in an already crowded business. Could have been so much better in more skilled hands. 7/10

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Get past the silly premise and you’ll find a film that knows exactly what it is but doesn’t shove it in your face. Benjamin Walker shows serious acting promise in a film that doesn’t exactly call for it, but if you throw out all your sense of logic and physics out the window, you just might enjoy yourself. And seriously, if “horse-throwing” doesn’t become a meme up there with “fridge-nuking”, I will shove it down the Internet’s throat until it does. 7.5/10

The Amazing Spider-Man

Was it too soon to reboot Spider-Man? Maybe. Was this movie made more because Sony wanted to keep the rights rather than because of creative integrity? Possibly. But should that stop the movie from being good. Hell no! This movie captures the Spider-Man I know in a much more mature way that any of Raimi’s movies did (and I still like those). Andrew Garfield is the perfect Peter Parker for our time and his chemistry with Emma Stone is through the roof. Marc Webb proves he can handle the weight of a big budget blockbuster and comes out with a film that will thoroughly entertain despite its problems. 9/10

That’s it for now! Have a good weekend.

Next week: TED

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES review

So, it’s finally here. The conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s groundbreaking trilogy that is probably the most hyped finale in a long time. Leading up to its release, I never doubted that it would be a good movie but I always knew it could never live up to expectations regardless of quality. So did it overcome this major obstacle? That’s a tricky question, but let me explain why.

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I won’t go into details on the plot, but I will say it is great. It ups the stakes from the previous movies and creates enough tension that you become unsure of every character’s safety. The pace remains fast and riveting, which is especially impressive for a film close to three hours long; I can easily say I was never bored. Its main flaw, however, is that it feels uneven at times.  People often complain how the Batman movies don’t focus enough on Batman himself, and TDKR is no exception. While Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is very key to the story, he spends very little time as Batman. The film feels like it has two protagonists; the other being John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). The film focuses on this character a lot and, while he is an engaging character that you quickly come to like, I feel more focus could have been put on Bruce’s struggle against these impossible odds. The movie also gets a bit extravagant in its third act which, while thrilling and an awesome spectacle, leads to some plausibility and plot holes. Regardless, I think the story works overall and is also a very good cap to the entire series. I didn’t get teary-eyed, but I’m sure some fans might during its final moments.

The performances in The Dark Knight Trilogy have always been stellar, and TDKR continues this trend. All the familiar faces continue to do excellent work and feel they have developed much since the events of TDK, especially Bruce and Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). You really feel the guilt they have around how this lie they created has put this city into a false sense of security and have set them up for a massive fall. Alfred’s (Michael Caine) role is very brief but very powerful during a certain revelation to Bruce. Morgan Freeman continues his charming role as Lucius Fox, and cameos from certain familiar faces from Batman Begins will put a smile on the faces of fans. But onto the new blood. As I said earlier, Gordon-Levitt works well as a secondary protagonist and you root for him as much as Batman near the end. Miranda Tate (Marion Cottilard) performs well, but that’s all I’ll say. In terms of villains, Bane (Tom Hardy) is very intimidating and definitely proves to be a good match for Batman, which is especially clear in their first battle. Hardy gets so much across here through just his eyes, though it is sometimes off-putting to hear that muffled voice of his. My main problem with him is how they treat the character in the finale. After a very big third act twist, his role feels diminished in the overall finale and his last moments are too rushed. However, the big surprise here is Catwoman (Anne Hathaway). She gives a wonderful performance, filling the classic femme fatale role brilliantly without falling into Schumacher-esque camp. I enjoyed every moment she was on screen and the film shows that Hathaway is a much more versatile actress than many assume.

Christopher Nolan knows how to deliver spectacle and he definitely delivers here. The scale is massive and the action is much more hectic and expansive than he has gotten in this whole series. And while it makes sense considering that this is the conclusion, I missed some of the quieter moments that were present in the climaxes of the first two. Here, once the actions starts it doesn’t let up until its over. On a technical level, the film is a pure treat. The cinematography is excellent, the editing mostly smooth and the score, while a bit too bombastic at times, fits well with the tone. While I’m unsure if this film will be up for any major awards come Oscar season, I’m sure it will have a major presence in the tech department.

In conclusion, The Dark Knight Rises is not the Second Coming of Movies a lot of its over-eager fanbase has been anticipating, but it is a satisfying conclusion to the story. I see it as the Return of the Jedi of the series: a good movie with a strong and finite ending but lacks some of the things that made its predecessors superior. I can honestly say I feel both The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man were better movies overall, but I feel all are flawed in their own ways; TDKR just has a few more. While I feel comparing these three movies is a bit unfair, it is an unavoidable discussion point. I definitely recommend you see it in a theatre (was unable to see it in IMAX, but I’m sure it looks amazing in the format) and decide for yourselves. Not everyone will be satisfied, but I think that will be more down to overhype rather than the quality of the film itself.

FINAL VERDICT: 8.5/10

 

P.S.: They showed the trailer for Man of Steel beforehand. It doesn’t show much, but it definitely feels like a Nolan production. It looks sombre and moody, and there is only a brief moment of Superman being Superman. Not enough to know whether it’ll be good, but it got me more invested.